Oxford University releases five sample interview questions and how to answer them
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One of the world’s most prestigious universities has given aspiring students a few clues as to how to nail their tough entrance examinations by releasing five sample questions.
Oxford University revealed a set of sample questions from tutors who conduct interviews on a range of different suspects from experimental psychology to maths and modern languages.
They are each designed to get students to think in different ways and allow them to demonstrate their curiosity and communication skills, among other things.
Admissions director Samina Khan said many of them will touch on things the applicant has already mentioned in a personal statement and should be about showing interests and abilities rather than reciting facts.
“We know there are still misunderstandings about the Oxford interview, so we put as much information as possible out there to allow students to see the reality of the process,” Dr Khan said.
“We now have mock interviews online, video diaries made by admissions tutors during the interview process, and lots of example questions to help students to familiarise themselves with what the process is — and isn’t — about.”
So can you do it? Check out the sample Q&As below.
Subject: Modern Languages
Q: What makes a novel or play ‘political’?
This question from Helen Swift is designed to test how intellectually curious a student is and could provoke a wider discussion around the feelings something evokes and how useful it is to label it.
“What about cases where an author denies that their work is political, but critics assert that it is — is it purely a question of subjective interpretation? And so on,” she said.
“A strong candidate would show ready willingness and very good ability to engage and develop their ideas in conversation. It would be perfectly fine for someone to change their mind in the course of the discussion or come up with a thought that contradicted something they’d said before — we want people to think flexibly and be willing to consider different perspectives; ideally, they would recognise themselves that they were changing their viewpoint, and such awareness could indicate aptitude for sustained, careful reflection rather than a ‘scattergun’ effect of lots of different points that aren’t developed or considered in a probing way.
“Undoubtedly, the candidate would need to take a moment to think in the middle of all that — we expect that ‘ermmm’, ‘ah’, ‘oh’, ‘well’, etc. will feature in someone’s responses!”
Q. About one in four deaths in the UK is due to some form of cancer, yet in the Philippines the figure is only around one in 10. What factors might underlie this difference?
The huge scope of this open question could reveal where a candidate’s interest lie, according to Chris Norbury of Queen’s College.
“Some candidates will seize on the idea that various aspects of the typical lifestyle in the UK are inherently unhealthy, which can make for an interesting discussion in itself. Others, especially if they appreciate that life expectancy in the Philippines is substantially lower than in the UK, will realise that other causes of death are more common in the developing world, and that this is the major factor that gives rise to the difference alluded to in the question,” he said.
“This probes selection criteria including problem-solving, critical thinking, intellectual curiosity, communication skills, ability to listen and compatibility with the tutorial format.”
Subject: PPE (politics, philosophy and economics)
Q: What exactly do you think is involved in blaming someone?
This curveball from Ian Phillips of St Anne’s College is designed to “draw out a candidate’s ability to think carefully and precisely about a familiar concept.”
“With a question like this we’re not looking for a right answer but instead whether the candidate can be creative in coming up with examples and suggestions, and can think critically and carefully through their implications,” he said.
“Good interviews will often generate all kinds of interesting and revealing discussions that show a candidate’s ability for analytical thought: for example about self-blame, cases of blame where the blamer knew the blamed had done nothing wrong, and indeed cases of blaming something inanimate (such as a faulty printer or phone).”
Q: Imagine a ladder leaning against a vertical wall with its feet on the ground. The middle rung of the ladder has been painted a different colour on the side, so that we can see it when we look at the ladder from the side on. What shape does that middle rung trace out as the ladder falls to the floor?
We’ll just let Rebecca Cotton-Barratt of Christ Church explain this one:
“This question tests whether you can do what mathematicians do, which is to abstract away all the unimportant information and use mathematics to represent what’s going on. I’d initially ask the candidate what shape they think will be formed, and then ask them how they can test this hypothesis.
“They might initially try sketching the ladder at different stages — this is fine, but ultimately what we want is something that we can generalise and that is accurate (you can’t be sure that your drawing is that accurate, particularly when you’re making a sketch on a whiteboard and don’t have a ruler).
“So eventually they will fall back on maths, and try to model the situation using equations. If they get stuck we would ask them what shape the ladder makes with the wall and floor, and they’ll eventually spot that at each stage the ladder is forming a right-angled triangle. Some might then immediately leap to Pythagoras’s theorem and use that to find the answer (which is that it forms a quarter circle centred on the point where the floor meets the wall).
“This is a fun question because the answer is typically the opposite of what they expect because they think about the shape the ladder makes when it falls (which is a series of tangents to a curve centred away from the wall and the floor). A nice extension is what happens when we look at a point 1/3 or 2/3 up the ladder.”
Subject: Experimental Psychology
Q: A large study appears to show that older siblings consistently score higher than younger siblings on IQ tests. Why would this be?
St Anne’s College interviewer Kate Watkins said this is a “great question” because it asks people to think about everything from scientific to behavioural factors and allows the interviewer to add in more information to see how the student responds.
“This can lead them to think about what the dynamics of being an older sibling might be that produce such an effect — they might suggest that having more undivided parental attention in the years before a sibling comes along makes a difference, for example.”
“Then we introduce the further proviso that the effect isn’t observable in only children — there is something particular to being an older sibling that produces it. Eventually most students arrive at the conclusion that being an older sibling and having to teach a younger sibling certain skills and types of knowledge benefits their own cognitive skills (learning things twice, in effect).
“But there isn’t really a ‘right’ answer and we are always interested to hear new explanations that we haven’t heard before. What we are interested in is the kinds of reasoning students use and the questions they ask about the study — what it takes into account, what it might not — that tells us about their suitability for the course.”
October 14, 2016